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Peerless Bjørgen stars as records tumble in women's cross-country

2018-03-29 08:44:00

The undisputed star of the women’s cross-country events – and indeed PyeongChang 2018 – was Marit Bjørgen who claimed medals in five events to take her overall tally to 15, more than any other Winter Olympian in history. Meanwhile, Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla and compatriot Stina Nilsson both made it onto the podium four times, including in the team sprint, where Jessica Diggins and Kikkan Randall made history by becoming the first US women to win a cross-country gold.

Skiathlon gold for Kalla in PyeongChang curtain-raiser

On 10 February, Charlotte Kalla won the first gold of PyeongChang 2018 with an assured victory in the women's skiathlon. The Swede completed the 15km course (7.5km classical style followed by 7.5km free style) seven seconds ahead of Marit Bjørgen, with Finland's Krista Parmakoski a further three seconds back.

It was Kalla's third Olympic title, following the 10km freestyle at Vancouver 2010 and the 4x5km relay at Sochi 2014, putting her alongside canoeist Agneta Andersson as Sweden's most successful female Olympian. She also became just the 10th athlete to win a gold medal at three different editions of the Olympic Winter Games.

Making the most of the ideal conditions, Bjørgen launched the first attack, breaking free from the pack just before the halfway point to whittle the leading group down to 12. However, it was Kalla's own attack at the 12km mark that proved decisive.

I'd told myself that if I was feeling strong I'd try something early in the last lap," said the 30-year old. "It's a mixture of happiness and relief. But mostly it's pure joy!"

Nilsson claims Falla's sprint crown

Kalla's compatriot Stina Nilsson made it two out of two for Sweden in the women's cross-country events as she produced an authoritative victory in the classical sprint final on 13 February. The 24-year-old finished ahead of reigning champion Maiken Caspersen Falla of Norway who just managed to see off Yulia Belorukova (OAR) in the battle for silver.

Nilsson maintained the impressive form she had shown en route to the six-woman final, where she proved too strong for Falla who was bidding to become the first woman to retain an Olympic sprint title. The Swede's attacking display saw her finish 3.03 seconds ahead of her Norwegian rival, with Belarukova a mere 0.34 seconds further back.

"I felt strong during the whole day so to be able to take the gold medal was fantastic," said Nilsson.

"It's been many ups and many downs and to take the gold medal today is something that I'm going to be proud of for the rest of my life. I really had the best day of my life so far."

Haga tops star-studded podium in women's 10km sprint

On 15 February, just three days after celebrating her 27th birthday, Norway's Ragnhild Haga won her first Olympic gold, the women's 10km freestyle race. Haga clocked a time of 25:00.05, with Charlotte Kalla finishing 20.30 seconds later to take silver, while Marit Bjørgen shared the bronze with Krista Parmakoski, a further 11.60 seconds off the pace.

Haga struggled to take in her achievement: "I've only ever won one World Cup race. I don't think it's sunk in yet that we're at the Olympics," she admitted, adding that she had drawn inspiration from the achievements of her male compatriots in sweeping the skiathlon podium.

In taking silver – her seventh Olympic medal overall – Kalla became the first woman to make it onto the 10km podium at three consecutive editions of the Games. As for Bjørgen, she took her medal tally to 12, just one off the record held by compatriot Ole Einar Bjørndalen.

Bjørgen equals medal record as Norway win 4x5km relay

Five days later Bjørgen was back on the podium for a record equalling 13th time as part of the Norwegian quartet that won gold in the women's 4x5km relay.

She and her compatriots, Haga, Ingvild Flugstad Østberg and Astrid Jacobsen, were made to work hard for their victory. After Østberg completed her 5km racing in the classical style, Jacobsen toiled and Norway found themselves out of the podium positions, behind the OAR team Sweden and Finland.

Slowly but surely Haga dragged them back into contention, leaving Bjørgen in with a chance to overhaul her Swedish and OAR rivals. In the end the battle for gold came down to a sprint finish between the Norwegian and Sweden's Stina Nilsson, who had already been crowned champion in the individual classic sprint. Bjørgen was two seconds faster across the line, with the OAR team claiming bronze over 43 seconds off the pace.

Bjørgen's powerful finish drew praise from one of her Swedish rivals, Charlotte Kalla. "We saw her attack strongly, and it was clear she was on really good form," said the Swede. "It was exciting to watch. Nothing surprises me about Marit – she's a fantastic skier."

Randall and Diggins score landmark win for USA

US duo Kikkan Randall and Jessica Diggins produced the form of their lives to win the team sprint on 21 February and give their country a first ever Olympic gold in women's cross-country skiing.

Faced with the awesome sprinting power of Norway's Marit Bjørgen and Sweden's Charlotte Kalla, Randall held her own to set up Diggins for the decisive final lap.

Diggins then had to dig deep to hold off the Scandinavian favourites as she crossed the line ahead of Sweden's Stina Nilsson and Maiken Caspersen Falla of Norway in a breathtaking finish.

In the three-way battle for the medals, Falla faded at the last, enabling the Swedes to claim the silver. Norway's bronze meant that Bjørgen had her 14th Olympic medal, making her the most decorated Winter Olympian of all time.

"Around that final corner I felt like I was coiling a spring and letting it go, digging as deep as I could, said Diggins. "When you're team is counting on you, you don't give up - ever."

"It's a dream come true," added Randall, who made her Olympic debut back in 2002. "A team gold is worth far more than any individual accolade."

Bjørgen takes centre stage after winning medal number 15

A few hours before the Closing Ceremony on 25 February, Marit Bjørgen completed a successful defence of her 30km mass start title to take the final gold medal of PyeongChang 2018. In doing so she extended her record medal count to 15 and equalled the eight golds won by her compatriots Bjørn Daehlie and Ole Einar Bjørndalen. This made her, beyond dispute, the most successful Winter Olympian of all-time.

And she claimed that honour with the resolve and determination that have seen her dubbed the "Iron Lady", powering her way to the top of the podium ahead of Finland's Krista Parmakoski and Sweden's Stina Nilsson.

Surging into the lead from the 10km mark, she was not going to allow anyone, or anything to come between her and a golden Olympic swansong.

"I came to these Games to win an individual gold. I didn't have one before today, and I knew I could do well over this distance," she said after the race.

Having changed her skis at the halfway mark, she crossed the line in 1 hour 22:17.6 seconds, almost two minutes ahead of Parmakoski and Nilsson, giving her plenty of time to grab a Norwegian flag as she entered the stadium, cheered on by an ecstatic crowd and clearly overcome by the emotion of the occasion and of her achievement.

"When I look behind me and see what I have done, it's incredible," said the 37-year-old. "It has been an amazing career for me, this is my last Olympics and to finish like this is incredible."

Fittingly, as she brought the curtain down on her 16-year Olympic career, Bjørgen was presented with her gold medal by IOC President Thomas Bach in front of a packed Olympic Stadium during the Closing Ceremony.

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